Blogs > Cliopatria > A Carnival and a Question

Dec 3, 2005 10:54 pm

A Carnival and a Question

As Ralph notes below (scooped again, damn!), Another Damned Medievalist has Carnivalesque XI up, and it's a veritable festival of Western Civilization! Not much of the rest of the world, though. That's not a criticism of the carnival or its Mistresses: I went looking for things to submit and came up pretty dry, as well. It's just that there's not, as near as I can tell, a lot of ancient/medieval blogging (in English) outside of the traditional Western regions.

I was meeting with my Historiography students last week, in a slightly informal session (it's late in the semester and we've had a break in the rain, so we were meeting outdoors) and one of them, deep in the throes of pre-registration, asked me

If you're not going on to grad school, why do a thesis?

I stumbled around for a good answer, but didn't come up with much. I talked about how well-prepared these students are for this project, how satisfying it is to reach that level of expertise and to delve into real discovery, how interesting some of their proposals and some of our previous theses have been. But basically it boils down to the very intangible value of personal satisfaction in highly abstruse achievement. I feel like I missed something, but thinking about it off and on for a few days (in between justifying my professional existence; more on that later) I can't think of what it might be. So I throw it out there: The AHA recommends a capstone research course, our accrediting agency seems to think it's a great thing, it seems like a good idea to me (though I didn't do an undergraduate thesis, myself), it's required by the department (or a major history-related service project, as an alternative, though there's only been one taker so far). But why? What do you tell students who ask you that question?

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Marc A. Comtois - 12/5/2005

For me, I realized that the practicality of me going on for the PhD is rather slim given real world responsibilities (re: family and kids) and the MA thesis was the best I could do to put into practice all I had learned. Importantly, I'm a non-traditional MA student (I have an engineering degree) who was angling for some vague self-fulfillment in the first place.

My school offers only an MA (it stopped it's Phd program in the early '90's) and caters to primarily the secondary-education market (high school teachers) who view the MA as professional development. In fact, the thesis is only and "option" and most take the extra course-work instead. Again, this is in-line with more professional goals than academic, I think.

One of he practical aspects of doing a thesis is that it is an exercise in digesting and synthesizing a vast amount of (often disparate) data to present a coherent explanation of some topic. This can be directly relatable the types of presentations that one is often required to give in the business world or in the scientific and engineering fields. Thus a selling point may be that there are indeed real-world applications that one can take from the process of doing a thesis.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/4/2005

Alan: Our senior thesis is a 1.5 semester project. The semester of dedicated writing and research is preceded by the Historiography course which addresses both theory and preparation for the thesis through bibliographic work and discussions of potential focus. It would be nice to make it a full two semesters, but we're already pretty credit-heavy as it is.

Kelly: Our capstone options include a "project" which hasn't often been taken. But one of the things we've discussed as a project option is curriculum and teaching related topics, and lots of our students go on to teaching after graduation. So I think we're on the same wavelength here, more or less.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/4/2005

That's true. The thesis is not an "extra credit" assignment, but an integral component of the program. It's important, after all, to be able to do big things as well as lots of little ones.

K Woestman - 12/4/2005

As we discover via the AHA report on the master's degree, the thesis component of the MA is no longer just a trail run at the dissertation for the PhD.

We are aiming our regular MA (not an MAT) to teachers who do larger projects that require as much research and analytical skill sets but are also useful for their teaching in an abridged format. So, they are documenting their exploration of history and writing shorter research papers but also doing larger Word and PowerPoint projects that require mastering the historiography as well as mining for the primary sources most relevant. They are also writing articles and book reviews along the way and participating in seminar-style discussions.

The reality is that we compete with the education schools since teachers are our primary audience. (Our other option is quite simply having the state governing board get rid of our MA degree). It is very similar to existing seminar option that was always an option to the thesis.

I think this is called "thinking outside the box." ;-)

Alan Baumler - 12/4/2005

I teach classes where students have to write the big paper as well, and I am pretty familiar with that question (usually mumbled rather than directly stated.) I answer by saying that the big paper is their masterpiece, the big project where they demonstrate that they have learned all the things we have been teaching them. Traditionally a masterpiece is something that demonstrates your competence to a community, but the Senior Paper really demonstrates it to yourself. I did one when I was an undergrad, and I was quite proud of it. It was not in my field, however, and the general level of research was, well, undergraduate. Still, it was the first time I really felt I had a grasp of the secondary literature on a topic without being spoon-fed it, and I was really using primary sources for something more than quotes. I felt like a real historian.

But who cares? What if I had not gone on to grad school, what good would these skills do me? I suppose if I ended up in customer service at Wal-Mart, none at all. If I was planning to be a teacher/coach who stayed one chapter ahead of the students it would also not be of much value. If I wanted to be a good high-school history teacher, however, or a History Pre-Law who really did learn the skills of research and argument that history is supposed to teach you it would have been invaluable. Even if all I wanted to do was be someone who enjoyed reading about and understanding history actually taking a bite of the apple and doing history would have been something I never forgot and would always regard as valuable.

Actually, for us the one-semester research class is increasingly not for the grad-school bound. They are encouraged to do a two-semester honors thesis where they can really show off. Senior Seminar or a Topics class is for those who are going to be historians but not academics.

Brian Ulrich - 12/4/2005

History isn't just about knowledge of the past, but about a skill set. Writing the thesis brings a lot of those skills to a fuller development.